The closer college basketball gets to the NCAA tournament, the more fans look around and try to discern which teams could make the next Cinderella run.
There may never have been a team seeded fourth or lower that’s won a Division I women’s basketball championship. It’s rare, since the tournament expanded to 64 teams for the 1994 NCAA tournament, to even see a team that fits that description reach the Final Four. But March Madness has still seen its fair share of surprising runs.
13 seeds that weren’t just one-hit wonders that reached the regional semifinals. An 11 seed in a regional final. And teams many didn’t project to even make the regional semifinal that advanced to the Final Four. Here are five of the most surprising runs teams have made the past 25 years — and what they accomplished along the way:
No. 9 Arkansas, 1998
Arkansas has never won a national championship, but it came close in 1998 when it battled all the way to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. The Razorbacks started with a 76-70 win against 8-seed Hawaii. They advanced to the regional semifinals with an 82-64 win against No. 16 Harvard, which upset No. 1 Stanford in the previous round, and found themselves in the regional final after a 79-63 win against No. 5 Kansas.
Arkansas, led by Sytia Messer, then clinched a spot in the Final Four with a 77-72 win against No. 2 Duke. The Razorbacks would lose to SEC foe and eventual national champion Tennessee, but history had already been made. They were the lowest seed ever to reach the Final Four, and in their four wins defeated four different conference champions.
The Razorbacks had finished the regular season tied for sixth in conference play.
No. 7 Minnesota, 2004
The 7-seed Gophers’ improbable run to the Final Four in 2004 required wins against their region’s top-three seeds after an opening round win against No. 10 UCLA. Minnesota crushed No. 2 Kansas State by 19, 80-61, in the second round and advanced past the regional semifinals with a 76-63 win against No. 3 Boston College. No. 1 Duke gave Minnesota its closest game to date in the regional final, but the Gophers dispatched the Blue Devils, 82-75.
Minnesota’s run ended in the Final Four with a nine-point loss to Diana Taurasi and the Connecticut Huskies, who would go on to win the national title. Lindsay Whalen, who starred for the Gophers before a professional career during which she won four WNBA championships and two Olympic gold medals, is now the team’s head coach.
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No. 13 Liberty, 2005
Liberty made its first two NCAA tournament wins in program history count. The Flames’ run in 2005 took out No. 4 Penn State in the first round, 78-70, and then No. 5 DePaul, 88-79, in the second as Liberty reached the regional semifinals. The run would end with a 42-point drubbing at the hands of the LSU Tigers, but to this day no team with a lower seed has advanced as far.
The 26 wins Liberty finished with is tied for fifth in program history. While there have been Flames teams that have won Big South championships since, as the 2005 team did, none have won an NCAA tournament game.
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No. 13 Marist, 2007
13-seed Marist replicated the feat accomplished by Liberty two years earlier, as well as Texas A&M back in 1994, during the 2007 NCAA tournament. The Red Foxes upset No. 4 Ohio State, 67-63, and then No. 5 Middle Tennessee State, 73-59, to set up a meeting with No. 1 Tennessee in the regional semifinals. But the Lady Volunteers sent the Red Foxes home with a 65-46 defeat on their way to a national championship.
Still, the win against Ohio State was Marist’s first in the NCAA tournament in program history and it came after the school’s second-straight MAAC championship. No other men’s or women’s Marist team has ever advanced as far.
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No. 11 Gonzaga, 2011
Gonzaga rode an 18-game winning streak into the 2011 NCAA tournament and took out the first three teams in its path before a loss in a regional final. First it beat No. 6 Iowa, 92-86, before a 14-point, 89-75 win against No. 3 UCLA sent Gonzaga into the regional semifinals. There No. 7 Louisville put up a fight only to lose by seven, 76-69, to a Gonzaga team that now was on a 21-game winning streak.
The Bulldogs' loss in the regional final by 23 against No. 1 Stanford ended that streak, but in the process Gonzaga still became the lowest seed to ever reach a regional final.
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